Contemplating a bust

bustgraphicI was struck today the use of “bust” as a noun and a verb in today’s (July 24) paper. The story, the lead on page 1B, was about arrests related to the making of methamphetamine in McDowell County and across North Carolina. Here is a sentence with “bust” as a verb: In the first six months of this year, the state busted 199 meth labs, 20 percent more than the same time a year ago, according to the State Bureau of Investigations. And here is one with “bust” as a noun: A single bust can tie up people for nearly 20 hours. The word also appeared in the headline of a bar graph on 1B.

I wondered what dictionaries had to say about “bust.” The three I consulted listed it as slang, meaning arrest or raid, among other things. The term seems to have begun life in English as a variant of the word “burst,” meaning to break open or suddenly explode. As a child in North Carolina’s western Piedmont (Catawba County), I heard my friends cry, “My balloon busted.” My mother, the English teacher, would have corrected me if I used the word that way. Oscar Hammerstein wrote “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” for the musical “Carousel.”

“Bust” has many other uses, though. It can mean that you have lost all your money. (Hey, man, I can’t go to the show. I’m busted.) It can mean that you have been demoted in the military. (The veteran sergeant was busted to private.) It can mean a big failure. (The concert was a bust after a storm blew through the outdoor amphitheater.)

It can apply to a party, at least in the 1970s, when we college students went to beer busts. It can mean to break up, as in trust-busting.

In hip-hop, “bust” means to do, as in “bust a rhyme” or “bust a move.” In gambling, you can go “bust” in blackjack by going over 21 with your cards. In the newsroom, some of us refer to a headline mistake that appears in print, especially one that we will have to stop the press to fix, as a “bust.”

So what about using a slang term in a newspaper story? Older editors (I am one) might wince at slang. If faced with the word “bust” in copy, we might ask if “arrest” or “raid” might be better. We might try to negotiate with the writer or another editor over the word, arguing that slang should be left at the police station or on the street.

On the other hand, would any reader NOT understand what a bust is or what it means when the police bust a meth lab? I don’t think so. “Bust” is still informal and even slang, but it is widely understood. The word does its job.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.